Everybody has a belief system. It's just sometimes difficult to make out what it is.
The simplest and plainest choice is religion. I don't say that in a denigrating way; it's just that religion offers itself up specifically as a belief system, so it's not surprising when many people use it that way.
Of course "religion" is a sprawling category. We've recently been having a bit of a flareup in the fracas between Christianity and its younger sibling Islam (which has been going on more or less since the end of the 11th century). I had a friend recently who was a member of a cult. "Cult" can be defined loosely as "a religion that is new or not yet established." Part of the appeal of her cult seemed to me equal parts unreasonableness and difficulty. Of course it used to be difficult to be a Christian, too. I need to investigate books about the morality of Jesus...the problem is that the subject is so hoary and the literature so vast that it's tough to find clear, well-written primers. Even single religions are sprawling categories, turns out.
Anti-religion can also be a belief system, which is amusing in a way. A few years back there was a fad for atheism—you remember, Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion and the Sam Harris's The End of Faith? (Speaking of faith, don't put too much of it in Amazon's new "bestseller" tags—The End of Faith might be a #1 Bestseller, but only in the hoppin' "Rationalist Philosophy" category.) The fad faded a bit when people realized the so-called New Atheists were treating rationalism, or even anti-religion, as a sort of religion itself.
It's not uncommon for people to build their belief systems around political principles. Or—speaking of selling—even economic ones. A surprising number of older people still "deify" capitalism, for example (recently, the number of younger American adults who approve of capitalism has fallen into a minority). The defining characteristic of human beings is our tendency to split into two sides, so—just as Superman (b. in Action Comics #1, 1938) required Lex Luthor (b. Action Comics #23, 1940), capitalism had to have communism. That fight has gotten faded and shopworn (Marxism's standard got tattered before capitalism's did). As has Superman's popularity—he's struggled to maintain an audience in recent decades.
I have a good friend who for a long time seemed to claim that everything, even art, rested on the centrality of political ideas. He seemed to relax that years ago, but when I asked him about it, he admitted that his beliefs had gotten so radical that he had to stop talking about them because of other peoples' reactions. I have a few convictions like that too—ideas so far out of the mainstream that they strike people right off the bat as startling, bordering on crazy. A recent essay by a writer I like, Alain de Botton, said that we should all ask potential partners when we first start dating, "and how are you crazy?"
You don't have to look very far to realize that hedonism has a pretty strong sway as a belief system right now—personal pleasure and self-interest as the guiding principle of life. It usually pals around with its friends relativism and narcissism. This is in contrast to past eras when virtue, discipline, and honor had the upper hand in popularity. That sounds like it had to be good, but not necessarily. In the sixteenth century, the French aristocracy literally decimated itself (i.e., one in ten died) by dueling, and the antebellum South thousands of men died, essentially voluntarily, protecting their honor. "Death is not sufficient to deter men who make it their glory to despise it," wrote Joseph Addison, in Vol. II of his Spectator. We, like the Greeks and Romans, have no enthusiasm for dueling whatsoever, and it is absent in modern Western society at any class level. (Honor and discipline are shaky with us too, though.) George Washington, a thoroughly uninteresting fellow apart from his central role in founding a fledgling nation, evidently spent his life cultivating his virtue and rectitude, with great humorlessness.
George Washington was also the Bill Gates or Michael Bloomberg of Colonial America—his net worth was approximately equivalent to $100 million today, and he was the richest American of his era. Today, money alone is the belief system of many. Be rich and then be richer, and never mind anything else. Wealth disparity, which has greatly accelerated since Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, makes that almost prudent—it's getting better and better to be rich and harder (and more dangerous) to be poor, almost with every passing month.
I have another friend who seems very much to have taken the hippie ethos of the 1960s as his permanent value system—Flower Power, peace, and free love. Even in the '80s I was wondering where that went...when exactly did peace and love get replaced by sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll, and hippies with punks? That was a change that not a lot of people seemed to notice much. I once tried to write a spoof song to the tune of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" (Peter, Paul, and Mary, 1962) called "Where Have All the Hippies Gone?" But unfortunately lyrics aren't my métier.
It's really fascinating to me how various beliefs tend to cluster together. It sometimes seems to defy consistency.
Two great minds who thought alike: animal behaviorists (and Nobel Laureates) Nikolaas Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz. Most people do not approve of animal behaviorism being applied to themselves, however.
Science and the scientific method is the core of some peoples' beliefs. This might include people who have specific scientific or academic disciplines as the locus of their belief systems. When I was young I developed in my own head, just for myself, something which I later learned was akin to sociobiology—a discipline so widely reviled that it has had to change its name (it's now more often folded into evolutionary biology or evolutionary psychology. People might no longer think Earth is the center of the Universe and human beings were magically created whole and entire from the Will of God, but we still don't like thinking that primatology says anything about us.) Evolution is part of my core beliefs, though, thanks to Mrs. Sieckman's 8th grade paleontology class! Although science isn't my interest, she was one of the best and most inspiring teachers I ever had. I credit her with teaching me to write—a science teacher, and I was a student who idolized my English teachers. I wrote what amounted to a thesis for her on the topic of evolution vs. religion, for which I interviewed no fewer than 15 priests, pastors, ministers, and rabbis, collectively one of the great educational experiences of my youth, and probably when my interest in what's really goin' on here first took serious traction.
I believe I've known people for whom logic is one of the lights, the light of all lights*.
Space travel and aliens, monsters or superheroes, fantasy worlds, movies and celebrity culture—and probably a whole lot of other things I prefer to not think about—flirt with centrality in the demotic belief systems of the multitude.
A distinguished analyst I know admits that her belief system is psychoanalysis. Sure enough, she has a bank of books by and about Freud in tidy rows in her office, and a diminutive Freud Action Figure stands on an end-table. I agree with her that Civilization and its Discontents is Freud's best book. The one book by Freud everybody should read.
A belief system is what you filter everything else through first. I think my own core outlook is essentially psychological. I've noticed that politics, economics, world affairs, science, history, even religion all tend to filter through psychology first in my thinking about the world. I could be wrong about that...but then, the reason I say that is because of the essentially psychological perception that it's harder to see ourselves than it is to see others.
The point is that something has to structure your core beliefs, and it's best to try to be aware of what it is. It can't be nothing. An old joke had it that even nihilists passionately believe in one thing—nihilism!
*Sorry, I'm playin' again—the quote is from Bran Stoker's Dracula. If excessive logicalness isn't vampirish, ya gotta admit it's at least Spockish.
"Open Mike" is the open-topic, anything-goes Editorial Page of TOP. It evolves every Sunday if I can think of a topic.
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